Meredith Attwell Baker, former NTIA head and now the leading candidate to fill the vacant Republican seat on the FCC, believes that government “would do best to tread lightly” when it comes to regulating broadcasting. That gives comfort to broadcasters who fear the new Democratic FCC majority will freeze ownership restrictions and move ahead with localism rules and other burdensome new regulations.
Meredith Attwell Baker, in a speech in Washington last fall, made clear her belief in minimal regulation of broadcasting.
Given the “robust and diverse media marketplace, government would do best to tread lightly,” the then-head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration told a Media Institute audience.
She endorsed the FCC’s relaxation of the newspaper/crossownership rule, calling it long overdue, and she said it would be a mistake to resurrect the fairness doctrine. “A return of this doctrine would be like a U-turn on the road of progress.”
She also criticized an FCC proposal to mandate local broadcast programming.
“[I]t seems antithetical to impose a new set of requirements on broadcasters for purposes of improving their responsiveness to the local communities they serve,” she said.
“Lest we forget, the presence of television and radio broadcast stations in their local communities and their production of local-oriented programming are among the most salient features that differentiate broadcasters from their competitors.”
At the time, the speech meant little. Baker was never a player in the policy debates on Capitol Hill or at the FCC. And, besides, by the time the speech was delivered on Nov. 20, she was a lame duck, on her way out along with every other Bush appointee.
But the speech has now taken on new significance as Baker has emerged as the leading candidate to fill the vacant Republican seat on the FCC.
It gives comfort to broadcasters who fear the new Democratic FCC majority will freeze ownership restrictions in place and move ahead with the localism rules and other burdensome new regulations.
“It’s fair to say she’s very open to hearing about how markets are working,” says Ken Ferree, a one-time FCC official who is now president of the Progress & Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Baker declined to be interviewed for this story.
If nominated and confirmed, the 41-year-old Baker would ally with the like-minded fellow Republican commissioner, Robert McDowell, who had an easy time yesterday before the Senate Commerce Committee, which is considering confirming him for a second term.
Together, they will provide counterpoint to three Democratic commissioners, who will be, if all goes as planned, Chairman Julius Genachowski, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn.
Genachowski also appeared yesterday before the Senate Commerce Committee and is now on a fast track to confirmation. Copps is the incumbent who has been acting chairman since Republican Kevin Martin resigned prior to Obama’s inauguration. Clyburn, the daughter of House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, is still awaiting her confirmation hearing.
Although there may be clashes of policy between Baker and the Democrats who are far less reluctant to shape the media through regulation, there should be few clashes of personality.
Baker brings a reputation for congeniality and collegiality. “She will participate in the debate and discussion and be part of the team at the FCC,” says Brian Fontes, the CEO of the National Emergency Number Association, who knows Baker from their days together at CTIA and who knows the FCC as a one-time aide to former FCC Commissioner James Quello.
“She certainly does not agree with most of our policy positions,” says Andrew Schwartzman of the Media Access Project. Nonetheless, he adds, she is “somebody who’s easy to talk to and deal with. I place a much higher priority on that.”
Most Washington insiders think Baker’s appointment is close to certain.
The Senate Commerce Committee’s top Republican, Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, handpicked Baker to fill the FCC slot and Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) is now believed to be backing her.
Baker also has the kind of connections that mean something in Washington. She hails from Houston and is the daughter-in-law of the Republican uber-politico James A. Baker III who, among other things, has served as White House chief of staff, Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State during the Reagan and Bush I years.
Meredith’s husband is James A. Baker IV (Jamie), the managing partner of the Washington office of Baker Botts. His primary focus is on international trade. They were married three years ago in Ravello, Italy, and Baker is now helping to raise James’ four daughters by a pervious marriage.
Meredith Baker is also Texas royalty. Her great-great grandfather was Isaac Van Zandt, who was ambassador to the United States when Texas was an independent country in the 1840s and who helped engineer the annexation of Texas by the U.S.
Her father, Kirby Attwell, a well-known Houston businessman, was at one time the president of Lincoln Liberty Life Insurance working for the late former Texas Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen.
The Attwells have been long-time friends of Baker and the Bush families
Baker has been in and out of government since she first went to Washington in 1990 following her graduation from Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va., a school known for its strict honor code and southern charm.
Although Baker earned a degree in journalism and Spanish, she wound up in the legislative affairs office of the State Department when her future father-in-law was the boss there.
She stayed at the State Department for two years before moving back to Houston to attend the University of Houston’s law school. While in school, Baker clerked for the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in Houston.
She graduated in 1994 and joined DeLange & Hudspeth, a full-service Houston firm where she focused on corporate and bankruptcy law.
Baker returned to Washington in 1998 to work as director of congressional affairs for CTIA. The job was a reunion of sorts. Also at the cellphone trade group at the time were fellow State Department alums Margaret Tutwiler, who headed public relations, and Steve Berry, who ran the government affairs office.
Baker’s work as a Hill lobbyist involved such issues as making 911 a national number and preventing cell phone cloning.
Tom Wheeler, then president of CTIA, remembers Baker as “a bundle of energy who took the time to learn the stuff and that’s a good combination.”
Wheeler gives Baker a solid Democratic connection. Earlier this year, he led the Obama administration’s FCC transition team.
Baker left CTIA in 2000 to become senior counsel at Covad Communications, which provides broadband voice and data communications. Her primary focus was passage of legislation to ensure that companies like Covad had access to the old Bell companies’ telephone lines.
She took time off from Covad to help the George W. Bush campaign on the 2000 presidential Florida recount in Miami — an effort led by James A. Baker III.
In 2002, she joined the lobbying firm of Williams Mullen Strategies, but left in 2004 for the NTIA, a division of the Commerce Department. There, she served as senior adviser to then Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce and NTIA head Michael Gallagher.
When John Kneuer became assistant secretary and head of NTIA in February 2007, Baker became his deputy and then took over as acting head of the organization when Kneur stepped down in November 2007.
But the White House chose not to nominate her for the job on a permanent basis. Instead, it nominated Neil Patel, an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney. With the clock running down on the Bush administration, Congress never acted on the Patel nomination so Baker continued to run the office.
“In my view, the administration should have nominated her for my post after John Kneuer left,” says her former NTIA boss Michael Gallagher, who is now president of the Entertainment Software Association. “She certainly earned it.”
Baker’s year in charge at NTIA was dominated one just one issue, the DTV transition. Using proceeds from the auction of spectrum freed up by the transition, the NTIA was to distribute $40 coupons to any viewers who wanted to buy a converter box, which would allow them to watch digital signals on their old analog TV sets. It turned out to be a $2 billion program.
The program ran into trouble as applications for the coupons suddenly surged far ahead of the coupon budget in late 2008. Critics say she should have anticipated the shortfall and alerted Congress that more funds were needed. Baker maintains that she did, but couldn’t get Congress to move.
Baker’s defenders say she was stuck in the middle between a Democratic Congress that was not willing to step up and a Republican administration not committed to the program or willing to spend more money on the program.
“Baker probably should have given more of a heads up that they were running out of money,” says one TV industry source. “But I really blame Congress. They are the ones who set it up. She was just implementing it. She couldn’t change the law. Congress is never going to take responsibility for anything they screw up. She was the easy fall person.”
NTIA did get additional funding when Congress passed President Obama’s economic stimulus package in February containing $650 million for the coupon program and other DTV educational efforts.
That coupon backlog contributed to a decision by the Obama administration to push Congress to delay the DTV switch-over date from Feb. 17 to June 12.
In retrospect, most say Baker did a good job in not only managing the coupon program, but also holding up her end of the DTV awareness effort.
“I personally give her high marks,” says the Media Access Project’s Schwartzman. “She did the best she could with grossly inadequate resources. She was given an unplayable hand; I think she did as well as she could under the circumstances.”
Or as NAB TV Board member John Lawson of Ion Media puts it: “Meredith defined grace under pressure. Under the original DTV legislation she had limited authority, she had limited resources, but managed those resources very effectively.”